Saturday, April 18, 2015

United to serve free drinks on long-haul flights

I regularly use this blog to beat up on United Airlines, so I should be fair and give them credit when they do something good for their passengers:
United Airlines passengers will no longer have to reach for their wallets if they ask for wine or beer on long-haul international flights. Not even in economy.

United says it will upgrade the food in its economy cabin, too, offering "a hearty three-course service" that will remain complimentary. Beyond that, the carrier will start selling the same light snacks that it already offers on its domestic flights.

The changes begin June 1, covering United's long-haul flights between the United States and Europe and Asia. They'll also include United flights between the U.S. and Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Many long-haul passengers, myself included, like to have a couple of adult beverages in-flight because it relaxes and makes the flight a bit more bearable. So why is United abandoning what is obviously a lucrative source of revenue?
The return of free drinks and the upgraded meal service on the long international routes will likely be welcomed by United's economy customers. But the effort also comes as United faces stronger competitors, both in the U.S. and abroad.

American and Delta already offer complimentary wine and beer in the economy cabins of their comparable long-haul routes. So do many foreign carriers that fly to the USA, including Germany's Lufthansa, Japan's All Nippon Airways and Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, calls United's latest changes a needed first step in bringing United into line with other global carriers.

"Their alliance partners – as well as competitors – offer an open bar," Harteveldt says. "It's a small thing, but United doesn't want to lose a sale just because they're charging people for drinks in economy and other airlines are not."
This new policy, which begins June 1st, applies to beer and wine but apparently not hard liquor. And again, it only applies to transcontinental international flights, so if you're flying to Mexico, the Caribbean, Ecuador or even Hawaii, you'll still have to pay up.

Still, it's a step in the right direction for United. Cheers!

My excitement awakens

I saw the latest trailer right after it was released. Rob Tornoe sums up my feelings perfectly:
(I've been watching all six Star Wars movies with my son, and I had forgotten just how absolutely awful the prequels were: the overuse of CGI, the stilted dialogue, the wooden acting, Jar Jar Binks... I hope I'm not setting myself up for disappointment come December.)


New flights to New Zealand

The influx of international carriers into Houston continues:
Air New Zealand announced Wednesday it will add Houston as its North American destination with a flight to Auckland.

This new nonstop flight marks the 11th new international carrier added in Houston since April 2013. Air New Zealand will fly a Boeing 777-200 from Bush Intercontinental "up to" five times a week. The flight will start in mid-December with ticket sales available in May.
Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance member, so it makes sense for them to plug into fellow member United's largest hub.

Speaking of United, it's worth remembering that they had planned to offer Houston-Auckland service themselves a few years back, but canceled that flight as part of their temper tantrum when Southwest was given permission to fly internationally from Hobby.

Houston will be Air New Zealand's fourth US destination, after Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco.



Monday, March 30, 2015

Interstate 69 comes through town

There's a new highway inside the loop:
Houston drivers will be getting a new freeway through downtown, but without a single improvement in their commute.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday approved dedicating 11 miles of U.S. 59 as Interstate 69, all within Loop 610. The designation closes a gap, making 75 miles of U.S. 59 jointly I-69 in the Houston area.

In metropolitan Houston, however, it is unlikely anyone will notice a difference, or change their habits of what they call the freeway, because the "new" interstate will be dual-branded with U.S. 59.
In other words, people will still call it the Southwest Freeway south of downtown and the Eastex Freeway north of downtown.

This process began a few years ago, when the Interstate 69 designation was added to the section of the Eastex Freeway between Loop 610 and Cleveland. Interstate status was bestowed upon the portion of the Southwest Freeway between 610 and Richmond about a year later. The TTC's latest action simply closes the gap. Eventually, I-69 will stretch all the way from Mexico to Canada:
I-69 is a multi-state freeway years in the making, linking the Rio Grande Valley with Port Huron, Mich. Sometimes called the "NAFTA Highway" because it links Mexican and Canadian port cities and many U.S. metro areas, it is far from finished. Arkansas and Louisiana have not started on a single piece of the project, though planning for the interstate began in 1992.

Texas made I-69 a priority in the past decade, citing the need to improve the movement of goods through the state. Most of the effort to create I-69 is focused on improving existing federal highways to interstate standards, meaning restricted access and no at-grade intersections among other specifics.

Work along U.S. 59 between County Road 227 in Wharton County and Spur 10 in Fort Bend County, set to start this year, will upgrade the stretch so it can be designated part of I-69, as well.
So how long before the new signs go up?
First, none of the U.S. 59 signs are going away. I-69 are being added, gradually, over the next couple months, said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston. Crews are making the signs, and will put them where the current U.S. 59 signs are now.

Othon said the segment officials recently designated is more complicated than others in the area because there are so many signs and references to the highway. Officials estimate the new signs along the 11-mile segment will cost about $100,000.

Larger signs, such as the overhead directional signs common above downtown lanes, won’t be replaced, Othon said. In most cases, an I-69 emblem will just be added.
For what it's worth, Google Maps wasted no time in adding the I-69 shields to their maps. And Swamplot commenters wasted no time making juvenile double-entendres.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do not give rabbits as Easter gifts

It's been over ten years since I wrote this article. And I stand by it, even though I still get hate mail from rabbit lovers. So with Easter approaching, imagine how happy I am to see this picture making the rounds on Facebook:
Look: I don't hate rabbits. I enjoy watching the eastern cottontails that pass through my yard. I just don't think they make good pets. They require a lot of attention and care. They are not cuddly or friendly; in fact, they're rather aggressive. They can be destructive. And they most certainly should not be given (especially to children) as Easter gifts.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

The legacy of Mack Rhoades

Last week, it was announced that University of Houston Athletics Director Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades would be leaving next month, to take the same job at the University of Missouri. Rhoades' biggest accomplishment while at UH was, without a doubt,  the construction of the university's new on-campus stadium; in fact, he was hired in 2009 precisely for that purpose. Work on a new practice facility for basketball is underway as well.

The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon believes that Rhoades made things better at UH during his time here. "If the only thing Rhoades accomplished during his tenure was getting the funding for the building of TDECU Stadium, his tenure would be considered a success." Solomon writes. He sees the Rhoades era as a positive one for UH Cougar athletics, even if there were some missteps along the way:
Rhoades came in as a young gun, a sharp administrator, a fundraiser, with a lot to prove.

It is arguable that under his leadership, UH has made the most significant financial commitment to athletics in the school's history.

While he made mistakes along the way, Rhoades has lifted UH.

The Tony Levine hire as football coach proved to be a head-scratcher in reality as it did on paper, and James Dickey didn't pan out as men's basketball coach.

But Rhoades quickly had impressive rebound hires in Tom Herman and Kelvin Sampson.

UH's next athletic director will thank Rhoades for a more solid ground on which to stand than an incoming UH AD has in some time.

That deserves applause.
The Houston Press's John Royal, however, is more circumspect:
The Mack Rhoades era at UH lasted five years. But his tenure leaves an open book that will not allow his work to be judged for several more years. He inherited a football team teetering on the edge of national relevance, a basketball team barely hanging onto relevance, two deteriorating stadiums, and a second-tier conference affiliation mainly consisting of teams with no historical ties to Houston or to Texas. 

As Rhoades departs, UH is still very much a work in progress. A football stadium has been built, but Hofheinz is barely holding together. The football team survived a disastrous coaching hire, but still teeters on the brink of national relevance while the basketball team was nearly killed by a disastrous coaching hire. And the school's still affiliated with a second-tier conference with almost no historical ties to UH or to Texas.

Rhoades deserves as much credit as possible for getting TDECU built. He worked tirelessly to get the needed funds, discovering along the way that UH alums talk big games, but often fail to back the talk up with checks made payable to the athletic department (it took the UH students agreeing to add on to their already onerous student fees to help get the thing built). But for all of the good done on the stadium, Rhoades blew it with the hiring of Tony Levine to replace Kevin Sumlin when Sumlin split for Texas A&M.
Royal points to the TDECU Stadium opener last August - a once-in-a-lifetime event, and perhaps the most anticipated event in the history of Cougar football - that was marred by a humiliating, momentum-killing 7-27 loss to double-digit-underdog UTSA: a loss that was the result of Rhoades' decision to promote woefully-underqualified assistant Tony Levine to head coach after Kevin Sumlin left. Or, as a friend of mine put it: "TDECU is the reason why we hired Rhoades. And the first game in TDECU is the reason why we should shed no tears about him leaving."

If Rhoades' decision to hire Tony Levine was a poor one, and his decision to give Levine a raise and contract extension right before the 2014 season an even poorer one, his decision to hire James Dickey to be head basketball coach - a hire I called a "bad April Fool's joke" at the time - bordered on utter incompetence. One of my concerns about Mack Rhoades when he was hired was that he had little experience in hiring coaches, and that concern was justified. Royal continues:
While the momentum of the Sumlin-era football team was stalled by Levine, whatever momentum was generated by Penders was jettisoned by Dickey. The squad was hit by player defections, dispirited play, and struggles against both vastly inferior competition and superior competition. Yet it could have been worse for basketball. The rumors are that Rhoades wanted to hire Billy Gillispie but that his choice was vetoed. Gillispie who had been fired after only two years as head coach of the college basketball factory known as Kentucky, instead ended up at Texas Tech after the UH job fell through, and he flamed out in spectacular style, being hit by allegations of abusing and mistreating his players. 

Rhoades appears to have righted the football and basketball ships by hiring the highly sought-after Tom Herman to coach football and by bringing on Kelvin Sampson, a former Rockets assistant coach who was highly successful as the head coach at Oklahoma and Indiana, to rescue the basketball team. But as Rhoades departs, it's still soon to say for sure that the two sports (the most important in the NCAA sports hierarchy) will recover from the disaster that was inflicted on them by the men Rhoades initially hired to be head coach.
As hopeful as I am about Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a single game yet, so it's still a bit early to call that hire a success (if indeed Rhoades had that much to do with that hire; rumors are swirling that the hire was a decision made above his head). And the UH mens basketball team just finished their season with a 13-19 record, so Kelvin Sampson has a long way to go before the program becomes competitive again. Hopefully Sampson can right the ship with his recruiting efforts; right now there is no local interest in Cougar basketball, and there won't be any until the team becomes competitive again. There's also the issue of basketball facilities, which Rhoades did not fully address while he was here:
And while Rhoades got TDECU Stadium built, Hofheinz Pavilion has continued to deteriorate. There's still no plan to replace or renovate the arena, and there's supposedly not much money available for use on the replacing/renovating. The place is a dump, and even if the team was good, it's difficult to imagine any but the most hard core fans wanting to come out to the games.
It's worth noting that TDECU Stadium is over budget and still not even 100% complete, but it's not clear if Rhoades bears any responsibility for that. What is clear is that Rhoades experienced friction with other University of Houston administrators, in particular Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Carl Carlucci, regarding the construction and operation of the stadium, which doubtlessly made Rhoades' decision to move on an easy one.

The bottom line, according to Royal:
It'll probably be a few more years until the full legacy of Mack Rhoades at UH can be evaluated. If Tom Herman turns UH into a Texas version of Ohio State, and if Kelvin Sampson can rebuild basketball, then the Rhoades era will be an unqualified success. Baseball and the smaller sports are in really good shape, there has been tremendous academic growth from the athletes, and then there's TDECU Stadium. So at least things are looking up for the Houston Cougars. 
A lot, of course, will depend on who the University of Houston hires to be its next athletics director. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

A step closer to flights to Mexico from Hobby

A regulatory hurdle cleared:
Southwest Airlines has won U.S. approval to fly from Houston to Mexico City and San Jose del Cabo.

Southwest plans to operate the flights beginning in October from a new international terminal being built at Houston's Hobby Airport.

The number of flights between the U.S. and Mexico is limited by treaty, but the U.S. Department of Transportation indicated Tuesday that both countries agreed to allow additional airlines to fly across the border.
Southwest has also filed with US and Mexican authorities for approval to fly from Hobby to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. It has also requested approval for flights from Hobby to San Jose, Costa Rica, and Belize City, Belize. No word on when those approvals will be granted, or what other international destinations Southwest might serve from Hobby in the future.

That being said, international flights to Hobby are now a reality: one week ago, the airport welcomed its first international flight since the 1960s, a Southwest 737 from the Caribbean island of Aruba. The international terminal at Hobby is not set to be complete until later this year, but (as I noted in a previous post) the presence of a US Customs preclearance facility at Aruba's Queen Beatrix airport allows this particular flight to be handled as a domestic arrival.

What will be interesting to see is if any airlines other than Southwest avail themselves to Hobby's international facilities. Several low-cost Mexican airlines -Interjet, VivaAerobus and Volaris - either have or will soon start service from Mexico to Bush Intercontinental. At that airport they face competitition with United's extensive Latin American network, as well as all the Latin American services that cattle carrier Spirit is adding from IAH. Given that Hobby is close to the Hispanic neighborhoods of the East End and Pasadena, would some of these airlines consider flying from that airport instead? Would an airline be willing to step into the void and fly from Hobby to Latin American cities that United has abandoned, like Mazatlán or Guayaquil?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Should Daylight Saving Time be year-round?

Last weekend, Daylight Saving Time (DST) began and we collectively engaged in our annual springtime tradition of setting our clocks forward one hour. Joseph Stromberg suggests that we should leave them that way:
Looking at the lobbying groups in favor of DST, however, hints at the real benefit. DST means that people who work a standard day shift (and kids who go to school during the day) get more daylight after work. Manufacturers like this because we tend to engage in leisure activities, take short trips, and buy things after work — but not before — so a longer DST slightly increases sales.

For the same reason, a year-round DST would also be nice for anyone who works inside and simply likes to occasionally see the sun during the short days of winter. It'd mean getting up when it's a bit darker out in exchange for an extra hour of light after work. In Washington, DC, for instance, sunsets in the dead of winter would be at roughly 6 pm, instead of 5, and sunrises would be at 8:30 am instead of 7:30.

The extra hour of morning darkness would be a sacrifice. But the extra hour of evening light would be a bigger benefit to all of us for the same reason that manufacturers like it: we're much less likely to spend it inside, where we have artificial light either way.

Evidence can be found in the fact that primetime TV ratings sink noticeably whenever DST goes into effect, and in a recent study that showed children get more exercise on days with later sunsets, regardless of weather or school hours. This is why most people are looking forward to turning their clocks forward this weekend — they'd prefer to have sunlight after work, rather than before, especially during the shrinking days of winter.

Research also hints at a number of unrelated benefits of DST. For instance, one study found that rates of outdoor robberies declined significantly when DST was extended, after controlling for unrelated factors. The researchers' hypothesis is that some crimes are more easily carried out during dark, and fewer people are going about their evening routines in the dark when DST is in effect.

Similarly, there's evidence that a year-long DST might reduce traffic-related deaths, especially for pedestrians. On the whole, daylight saving means that more travel occurs during daylight, when it's easier to see pedestrians, which is why researchers calculate that full-time DST could save a few hundred lives annually.
I've written about this before, and I completely agree. I enjoy that extra hour of daylight in the summer, I hate having to drive home in the dark in the winter, and so I'd just as soon eliminate standard time completely. We are only in "standard time" for four months out of the year as it is, and the constant switch back and forth is disruptive. So let's just have year-round DST.

I'm not the only person who feels this way:
A Denver fitness instructor, Sean Johnson, last week launched a campaign called Save the Daylight Colorado. Johnson aims to put a measure seeking to abolish clock changes in the state on the ballot at the November 2016 elections.

“I’m a personal trainer and people were telling me they feel drained of energy during the winter and then when the clocks go forward it takes them a month to get used to the new schedule and they hate that,” he told the Guardian. “There are many reasons not to keep switching.”

Johnson cited research presented last year by a cardiovascular expert, Dr Amneet Sandhu, who is a fellow at the University of Colorado, Denver. Sandhu’s research suggests that hospitals see an increase of up to 25% in the number of patients suffering heart attacks shortly after the clocks go forward in the spring.

Loss of sleep resulting from the mandated time change in the early hours of Sunday morning affects the circadian rhythm and can be risky for those already vulnerable to a heart attack, according to Sandhu.
There are apparently also studies showing that car accidents spike and worker productivity plummets immediately following the weekends we spring forward and fall back.
Johnson said he liked summer time – just not the idea of having to put the clocks forward to achieve it. He wants Daylight Saving Time all year round.

Idaho last week withdrew legislation that proposed doing just that, citing federal law that it interpreted as allowing for standard time all year round or switching back and forth, but not 365 days of Daylight Saving Time.

Johnson, however, said he believed the law was ambiguous and if he could gather approximately 100,000 signatures to put his initiative on the ballot, and then have enough people vote for it, Colorado could become the first state to be ahead of time all the time. New Mexico is considering legislation to switch to Daylight Saving Time year round, while a proposal to impose standard time year round in Washington state is being considered. A proposal to do so in Utah was recently defeated.
Apparently there's a bill before the Texas Legislature to do away with the time change as well. It will be interesting to see if any of these initiatives go anywhere, and I'm sure the business interests who benefit from the time change will have something to say about them.

For what it's worth, let this post be a vote for year-round DST. Now that we've sprung forward, let's never fall back again!

A couple of years ago Allison Schrager at The Atlantic suggested that the United States do away with Daylight Saving Time by consolidating into two, rather than four, time zones. Michael O. Church's defense for keeping things the way they are is worth a read as well.

Monday, February 23, 2015

It's still winter, but my tomato plants didn't get the memo

My little gardens have been producing throughout the winter. This was yesterday's harvest:


It really is amazing, considering that, other than some minor weeding and pruning, I really haven't tended to the gardens in several months. But the tomato plants weren't killed by any freezes (can't say the same for the basil, though...), and I guess the otherwise mild winter, along with the rain, have caused them to bear copious amounts of fruit.

I can't complain.

2015 UH Football schedule released

Last week, the 2015 University of Houston Cougar football schedule was released:

     Sat Sep 05     Tennessee Tech
     Sat Sep 12     at Louisville
     Sat Sep 19     off
     Sat Sep 26     Texas State
     Sat Oct 03     at Tulsa
     Thu Oct 08   SMU
     Fri Oct 16     at Tulane
     Sat Oct 24     at UCF
     Sat Oct 31     Vanderbilt
     Sat Nov 07    Cincinnati
     Sat Nov 14    Memphis
     Sat Nov 21    at UConn
     Fri Nov 27    Navy

Kickoff times have yet to be announced, but the Thursday home game against SMU and the Friday game at Tulane's new stadium will obviously be evening kickoffs for ESPN or ESPN2.

There's a lot to like here, especially when compared to the previous season's schedule. There are two schools from "Power Five" conferences on the slate, including a Halloween matchup against Vanderbilt. There's the revenge game against Texas State in late September, and a Black Friday matchup against Navy which ought to be interesting. There's only one set of back-to-back road games and a three-game homestand towards the end of the season. The only thing I don't like is the bye week, as it comes so early in the season. But all in all, this is a decent schedule.

How will the Coogs do against this slate? I honestly have no idea; I have high hopes for new head coach Tom Herman and his staff, but Houston lost a lot of talent off of last year's team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Some of these games: Louisville and Central Florida on the road; Vandy, Cincinnati and Memphis at home - are going to be very physical and tough. And let us not forget that Texas State and Tulane beat the Coogs last time they played.

This isn't to say that the Coogs won't have a winning season this fall, but Herman and his staff definitely have their work cut out for them between now and September.